David Smith's Top NASCAR Prospects of 2019 (1-15)

By David Smith
March 4, 2019

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Welcome to the Motorsports Analytics list of the top NASCAR Cup Series prospects for the 2019 racing season.

For those unfamiliar with my work or me, I’ve been employed as a scouting consultant to race teams and athlete representation agencies since 2006. This is my eighth prospects list for MotorsportsAnalytics.com. The rankings below are predominately statistics-driven; however, I’ve watched extensive film on every driver listed and saw over 90 percent of them live within the last 14 months. I exercised subjective reasoning when needed.

Drivers are ranked based on how their statistical profiles, with age heavily considered, project over the next 20 years.

Here are my guidelines:

  • The entire list is limited to drivers with less than 10 NASCAR Cup Series starts.
  • The top 60 are limited to drivers competing in a development ladder series—the Xfinity Series, Truck Series, K&N Pro Series or ARCA—as recently as 2018.
  • Each series has an age cutoff; the ceilings are 29 for Xfinity, 27 for Trucks and 24 for K&N and ARCA.
  • Ages listed refer to the age of the driver for the majority of the 2019 racing season.
  • Marketability and personal wealth are not considered; this is purely a list populated by talent and results.

Click here for: Prospects 16-60 (Subscribers Only) | The Watch List (Subscribers Only)

1. Christopher Bell

Age 24 (12/16/1994) | Norman, Okla.

There were 17 races on non-drafting ovals in which Bell didn’t crash in 2018. In that sample, he scored six of his seven wins and averaged a finish (3.0) over eight positions better than his yearlong rate (11.1). His crash frequency on the season, 0.52, was one of the five highest among all drivers with six or more starts and the most of any series regular, but the more uplifting numbers here reveal the most important truth. When he isn’t crashing on the tracks most prominent on the NASCAR schedule, he’s an exceptional talent.

Bell’s 2.803 PEER last season helped push his PROA—or his average production rating compared to the expectation of drivers his age—above the plus-1.500 mark, giving him the best career rating among qualified drivers not already in the Cup Series. For that reason, he’s the number-one prospect in Stock Car racing in 2019.

Bell doesn’t just claim results in clean air; he scores his wins in style with the peripheral dominance befitting a generational prospect. His plus-5.44 percent surplus passing value for the whole of 2018 ranked better than every Xfinity front-runner except Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch. The 159 additional positions his surplus value created were the most of any driver in the series last season. His surplus passing ranked second on short tracks, second on quad-oval intermediates, sixth on 1-mile tracks, seventh on moderate intermediates and ninth on 2-mile, non-drafting tracks; as such, he was the only driver in the series who was a top-10 passer on all five measureable track types.

Among drivers with at least 10 attempts from inside the first seven rows, he ranked ninth in restart position retention from the preferred groove—an 86 percent rate for a gain of 55 spots—and 12th from the non-preferred groove, his 51 percent retention just ahead of the series-wide rate. In his 14 restarts as the race leader, he maintained his position 11 times.

It’s a wonder how come a driver with this good of an Xfinity Series effort didn’t get a Cup Series ride for the ensuing season, but because the precise dominoes he needed to fall in his favor remained in place, he finds himself back in the situation that catapulted him to prominence. He’s Toyota’s pet project made good and will soon apply his trade on Sundays, presumably with an elite level of competence.

2. John Nemechek
Age 22 (06/11/1997) | Mooresville, N.C.

Nemechek’s first Xfinity Series season resulted in a 1.944 PEER, nearly 0.900 points better than expected from a 21-year-old. In addition to his 18 Xfinity starts, he made 18 appearances in Trucks. Across the two, he demonstrated a penchant for efficient passing on 1-mile tracks and moderate intermediates, earning a combined surplus differential of plus-130. He ranked as the second-best restarter in Trucks from the non-preferred groove and was a top-6 preferred groove restarter in both Xfinity and Trucks.

3. Chandler Smith
Age 17 (06/26/2002) | Talking Rock, Ga.

Smith’s highly anticipated foray into heavy-body cars didn’t disappoint. He ranked first in ARCA PEER in 2018, a 3.278 rating as a 15/16-year-old through nine races. Restarts didn’t deter the balance in his finishing splits—he averaged a 5.7-place result in races with less than seven restarts and a 4.5-place result in events with seven or more—and he never finished outside the top 10, winning twice, at Madison and Salem, and leading at least 37 laps in all but two outings.

4. Cole Custer

Age 21 (01/23/1998) | Ladera Ranch, Calif.

Custer is evolving. His Xfinity career PROA stands at plus-0.584 and his minus-258 adjusted pass differential from 2017 was lightened to a mere minus-102 last season—still inefficient but headed in the right direction. His dependency on clean air and competitive central speed isn’t a deal-breaker considering Joey Logano won a championship last year brandishing a similar style, but as long as he’s succeeding so infrequently with it in such a coveted ride, his ceiling remains a tier below the prospect elite.

5. Todd Gilliland

Age 19 (05/05/2000) | Sherrills Ford, N.C.

Gilliland, who won 45 percent of his K&N West starts from ages 15 to 17, hasn’t found his footing at the national level. Last year’s 1.053 PEER was nearly 0.600 points worse than the average 18-year-old trucker, and even though he proved himself an above average restarter and a plus passer on tracks a mile and shorter—netting a 47-position surplus—he went winless. He averaged an 11.2-place finish across the six races in which his truck held a top-5 Central Speed.

6. Chase Briscoe
Age 24 (12/15/1994) | Mitchell, Ind.

Consider the locales for Briscoe’s victories in Xfinity and Trucks—Homestead, Eldora and the Charlotte Roval—and it’s easy to spot his talent and versatility. His PEER from last season, when extrapolated to 33 races, led to an Xfinity PROA of plus-1.417 despite a 0.71 crash frequency through 17 starts. He’ll need to shore up his track position defense—he dropped 40 spots beyond his average running position’s expectation last year, netting a 40-position loss on restarts despite an above average retention rate from the preferred groove.

7. Harrison Burton
Age 18 (10/09/2000) | Huntersville, N.C.

After stumbling on his first step up the developmental ladder—he ranked last in K&N East PEER in 2016—Burton navigated K&N East and ARCA cleanly in 2018, ranking in the top seven for PEER in both and holding a plus-1.226 PROA in the former. He now turns to Trucks, where his crash-free eight-race sample last season ranked ninth in PEER but resulted in a second consecutive season of negative passing, incurring a surplus loss of 20 positions on intermediate tracks.

8. Daniel Hemric

Age 28 (01/27/1991) | Kannapolis, N.C.

Wins are for the record books, not for evaluation and thus, Hemric, winless in both Xfinity and Trucks and old for a high-tier prospect, should be evaluated with an open mind. He embarks on a Cup Series career with some goods: he passed for positive surplus values last year on 1-mile tracks (plus-2.74 percent) and 1.5-mile intermediates (plus-5.95 percent) and retained his non-preferred groove restart position at a high clip (62 percent, ranked eighth among those with at least 10 attempts).

9. Ryan Preece
Age 28 (10/25/1990) | Kensington, Conn.

Preece’s career Xfinity PROA clocked in under plus-0.200, but quibbles regarding his production ability or his advanced age fall silent once his passing numbers are considered. A Modified Tour champion at 22, he’s grown into a voracious eater of track position who scored 64 positions beyond the expectation of his average running whereabouts last year on 1-mile tracks, moderate intermediates and quad-oval tracks; he ranked ahead of every front-runner, save for Kyle Larson, on the moderate intermediates, NASCAR’s most prevalent track type.

10. Noah Gragson
Age 20 (07/05/1998) | Las Vegas, Nev.

Gragson departed the Truck Series with a career PROA shy of plus-0.800, but disappointed those who rely on traditional measures. For certain, he won just twice in Kyle Busch Motorsports equipment and produced a few memorable gaffes; however, he was a mere teenager at the time and the good he amassed is enough to keep his name afloat in broad prospect discussions. To wit, he’s an above average restarter—nearly 10 percent better from the non-preferred groove—a boon in the stage-racing era.

11. Jesse Little
Age 22 (04/15/1997) | Sherrills Ford, N.C.

We’re approaching five years since the last time Little ran a full season of anything, but the select glimpses we’ve seen have been productive. His plus-0.337 career Trucks PROA and fifth-place PEER ranking last season, despite negative overall passing numbers, points to a driver who should be considered an above average Cup prospect. His position retention on restarts last season from the preferred groove (79 percent) and non-preferred groove (58 percent) fared better than the series-wide rates.

12. Ben Rhodes
Age 22 (02/21/1997) | Louisville, Ky.

Rhodes improved via traditional measures with each passing Trucks season, increasing his top-5 totals from two to six and eight, with a six-position increase in average finish. He ranked fifth among series regulars last year in PEER, first in non-preferred groove restart position retention (67 percent), fourth in surplus passing value (plus-3.31 percent, for a surplus positional gain of 90 spots beyond an expected plus-58) and cut down on 2017’s high crash frequency (from 0.48 times per race to 0.13).

13. Derek Kraus
Age 17 (09/01/2001) | Stratford, Wis.

Kraus totaled five K&N victories prior to his win in the East division’s 2019 opener at New Smyrna, establishing bona fides prior to his 18th birthday. He ranked third in K&N West PEER last year, trailing only Derek Thorn and Ryan Partridge, drivers roughly double his age. He displayed a knack for qualifying, with his 3.1-place starting spot ranking as the best in the series and placing him second or better on the starting grid for 10 out of 14 races.

14. Zane Smith
Age 20 (06/09/2000) | Huntington Beach, Calif.

Smith found ARCA victory lane on his 17th try and won three more times in the 12 starts that followed, propelling him to a 1.775 PEER, ranking eighth overall and fourth among series regulars. He carries a career PROA over plus-1.000 into the Xfinity Series for a limited stint with JR Motorsports along with his some questions surrounding his restarting ability; he fared significantly better in races without red zone restarts (4.6-place average finish) than in races with at least one red zone attempt (10.8).

15. Justin Haley
Age 20 (04/28/1999) | Winamac, Ind.

Haley’s passing problem—his minus-5.15 percent surplus passing value trailed every Truck Series regular except Justin Fontaine—appears tied to long-runs, as his restart retention in each groove—76 percent from the preferred, 53 percent from the non-preferred—landed above the series-wide rate. Despite his peripheral shortcomings, he has a knack for getting shock results, with two of his three victories coming after leading seven laps or less. Haley’s plus-0.172 career PROA puts him on track for an above average career.

Click here for: Prospects 16-60 (Subscribers Only) | The Watch List (Subscribers Only)


David Smith is the Founder of Motorsports Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.